The Beatles – The White Album

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The Beatles is the ninth official album by English rock group the Beatles, a double album released in 1968. It is also commonly known as “The White Album”, as it has no graphics or text other than the band’s name embossed (and, on the early LP and CD releases, a serial number) on its plain white sleeve.

The album was written and recorded during a period of turmoil for the group, after visiting the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India and having a particularly productive songwriting session in early 1968. Returning to the studio, the group recorded from May to October 1968, only to have conflict and dissent drive the group members apart. Ringo Starr quit the band for a brief time, leaving Paul McCartney to play drums on two tracks. Many of the songs were by less than the full group, some of them “solo” recordings, as each individual member began to explore his own talent.

Upon its release in November 1968, the album received mixed reviews from music critics, who criticized its satirical songs as unimportant and apolitical amid a turbulent political and social climate. However, it reached number 1 on the charts in both the United Kingdom and the United States. The album has sold over 20 million copies worldwide and has since been viewed by critics as one of the greatest albums of all time. In September 2013 after the British Phonographic Industry changed their sales award rules, the album was declared as having gone platinum.

The Beatles were at the peak of their global influence and visibility in late 1968. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, released the previous year, had enjoyed a combination of commercial success, critical acclaim, and immense cultural influence that had previously seemed inconceivable for a pop release. Time, for instance, had written in 1967 that Sgt. Pepper’s constituted a “historic departure in the progress of music—any music,” while Timothy Leary, in a widely quoted assessment of the same period, declared that the band were prototypes of “evolutionary agents sent by God, endowed with mysterious powers to create a new human species.” The Beatles was the first album that the group undertook following the death of their manager, Brian Epstein, and the first released by their own record label, Apple.

Most of the songs were conceived during a Transcendental Meditation course with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh, India in the spring of 1968. The retreat had required long periods of meditation, initially conceived by the band as a spiritual respite from all worldly endeavours—a chance, in John Lennon’s words, to “get away from everything.” Both Lennon and Paul McCartney had quickly found themselves in songwriting mode, however, often meeting “clandestinely in the afternoons in each other’s rooms” to review the new work. “Regardless of what I was supposed to be doing,” Lennon would later recall, “I did write some of my best songs there.” Close to forty new compositions had emerged in Rishikesh, twenty-three of which would be recorded in very rough form at Kinfauns, George Harrison’s home in Esher, in May 1968.

The Beatles had left Rishikesh before the end of the course, with Starr and then McCartney departing, and Lennon and Harrison departing together later. According to some reports, Lennon left Rishikesh because he felt personally betrayed by rumours that Maharishi had made sexual advances toward Mia Farrow, who had accompanied The Beatles on their trip. Shortly after he decided to leave, Lennon wrote a song called “Maharishi” which included the lyrics, “Maharishi/You little twat”; the song became “Sexy Sadie”. According to several authors, Alexis Mardas (aka “Magic Alex”) deliberately engineered these rumours because he was bent on undermining the Maharishi’s influence over each Beatle. In a 1980 interview, Lennon acknowledged that the Maharishi was the inspiration for the song: “I just called him ‘Sexy Sadie’.”

The album’s working title, A Doll’s House, was changed when the English progressive rock band Family released the similarly titled Music in a Doll’s House earlier that year.

The Beatles was recorded between 30 May 1968 and 14 October 1968, largely at Abbey Road Studios, with some sessions at Trident Studios. Although productive, the sessions were reportedly undisciplined and sometimes fractious, and they took place at a time when tensions were growing within the group. Concurrent with the recording of this album, the Beatles were launching their new multimedia business corporation Apple Corps, an enterprise that proved to be a source of significant stress for the band.

The sessions for The Beatles marked the first appearance in the studio of Lennon’s new girlfriend and artistic partner, Yoko Ono, who would thereafter be a more or less constant presence at all Beatles sessions. Prior to Ono’s appearance on the scene, the individual Beatles had been very insular during recording sessions, with influence from outsiders strictly limited. McCartney’s girlfriend at the time, Francie Schwartz, was also present at some of the recording sessions, as were Pattie Harrison and Maureen Starkey, the other two Beatles’ wives.

Author Mark Lewisohn reports that the Beatles held their first and only 24-hour recording/producing session near the end of the creation of The Beatles, which occurred during the final mixing and sequencing for the album. The session was attended by Lennon, McCartney, and producer George Martin.

Though not formally credited on the album, Eric Clapton played lead guitar on Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”. Harrison explains in The Beatles Anthology that Clapton’s presence temporarily alleviated the studio tension and that all band members were on their best behaviour during his time with the band in the studio. Harrison, who had invited Clapton to the sessions, soon reciprocated by collaborating with Clapton on the song “Badge” for Cream’s last album Goodbye. Harrison, too, was not formally credited at first, but was identified as “L’Angelo Misterioso” on the cover.

Clapton was not the only outside musician to sit in on the sessions. Nicky Hopkins provided electric piano for the single cut of “Revolution” (recorded during these sessions). Several horns were also recorded on the album version of “Revolution 1”. “Savoy Truffle” also features the horn section. Jack Fallon played a bluegrass fiddle on “Don’t Pass Me By”, and a team of orchestral players and background singers appeared on “Good Night” (which was Beatle-free except for Starr’s vocal).

Although most of the songs on any given Beatles album are usually credited to the Lennon–McCartney songwriting team, that description is often misleading, and rarely more so than on The Beatles. With this album, each of the four band members began to showcase the range and depth of his individual songwriting talents, and to display styles that would be carried over to his eventual solo career. Indeed, some songs that the individual Beatles were working on during this period eventually were released on solo albums. According to the bootlegged album of the songs recorded at Kinfauns, George Harrison’s Esher home, these include Lennon’s “Look at Me” and “Child of Nature”, eventually reworked as “Jealous Guy”; McCartney’s “Junk” and “Teddy Boy”; and Harrison’s “Not Guilty” and “Circles.”

Many of the songs on the album display experimentation with unlikely musical genres, borrowing directly from such sources as 1930s dance-hall music (in “Honey Pie”), classical chamber music (in “Piggies”), the avant-garde sensibilities of Yoko Ono and John Cage (in “Revolution 9”), country-style music (Ringo Starr’s “Don’t Pass Me By”), a western-style saloon ballad (“Rocky Raccoon”), and the lush sentimentality of Henry Mancini’s film scores (in “Good Night”). Such diversity was largely unprecedented in global pop music in 1968, and the album’s sprawling approach provoked (and continues to provoke) both praise and criticism from observers. “Revolution 9”, in particular, a densely layered eight-minute-and-thirteen-second sound collage, has attracted both interest and disapproval from fans and music critics over the years.

The only western instrument available to the group during their Indian visit was the acoustic guitar, and thus many of the songs on The Beatles were written and first performed on that instrument. Some of these songs remained acoustic on The Beatles (notably “Rocky Raccoon”, “Blackbird”, “Julia”, “Cry Baby Cry”, “I Will” and “Mother Nature’s Son”) and were recorded in the studio either solo, or by only part of the group.

The album’s sleeve was designed by Richard Hamilton, a notable pop artist who had organised a Marcel Duchamp retrospective at the Tate Gallery the previous year. Hamilton’s design was in stark contrast to Peter Blake’s vivid cover art for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and consisted of a plain white sleeve. The band’s name was discreetly embossed slightly below the middle of the album’s right side, and the cover also featured a unique stamped serial number, “to create,” in Hamilton’s words, “the ironic situation of a numbered edition of something like five million copies.” Indeed, the artist intended the cover to resemble the “look” of conceptual art, an emerging movement in contemporary art at the time. Later vinyl record releases in the US showed the title in grey printed (rather than embossed) letters. Early copies on compact disc were also numbered. Later CD releases rendered the album’s title in black or grey. The 30th anniversary CD release was done to look like the original album sleeve, with an embossed title and serial number, including a small reproduction of the poster and pictures (see re-issues).

The album’s inside packaging included a poster, the lyrics to the songs, and a set of photographs taken by John Kelly during the autumn of 1968 that have themselves become iconic. This is the only sleeve of a Beatles studio album not to show the members of the band on the front.

LP packaging varied somewhat by territory. Original copies of the LP released in New Zealand, for example, opened from the top rather than the right side, and were numbered starting at 10,000. (Later pressings opened conventionally from the right side, and did not bear a unique number.) Some South American editions did not feature the Kelly photographs in the gatefold, instead including uncredited performance photographs of the band from circa 1964-65 (the Beatles are clean-shaven and wearing matching suits in the photos, as Brian Epstein insisted they do in performance during this period).

Tape versions of the album did not feature a white cover. Instead, cassette and 8-track versions (issued on two cassettes/cartridges in early 1969) contained cover artwork that featured high contrast black and white (with no grey) versions of the four Kelly photographs. In both the cassette and 8-track versions of the album, the two tapes were sold in a black slip-cover box that bore the title, “The Beatles”, and the outline of an apple, embossed in gold. This departure from the LP’s design not only made it difficult for less-informed fans to identify the tape in record stores, but it also led some fans at the time to jokingly refer to the 8-track or cassette not as the “white album” but as the “black tape.” In 1988, Capitol/EMI re-issued the 2-cassette version of the album, still with the same cover artwork as the original cassettes, but without the black slip-cover box. The mid-1990s Canadian Apple/Capitol version of the 2 cassette set (C4-46443A/B) does have the appropriate plain white inlay cards with “The Beatles” Part 1/Part 2 lettering across the bottom of the inlay.

Capitol/EMI initially issued reel-to-reel editions of The Beatles, as well. These also used the black-and-white Kelly portraits as cover art, and were available in two configurations: as two separate volumes similar to the cassette and 8-track editions, and as a single twin-pack tape. Capitol/EMI ceased manufacturing of pre-recorded reel tapes in North America in late 1969, and subsequently licensed the album (along with several other Beatles recordings) to Ampex for reel-to-reel distribution. The Ampex reel-to-reel tape version of The Beatles, released in early 1970 (in two separate volumes, and again using the Kelly cover artwork), is particularly noteworthy in that it features eight tracks in edited form: “Dear Prudence”, “Glass Onion”, “Don’t Pass Me By”, “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?”. “Yer Blues”, “Helter Skelter”, “Cry Baby Cry” and “Revolution 9”. These are unique to the album’s Ampex reel-to-reel version, and have not been issued since.

In the autumn of 1978, the album’s tenth anniversary, EMI reissued the album as a two-record set pressed on white vinyl in limited quantities of only 150,000 copies. In 1981, Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab (MFSL) issued a unique half-speed master variation of the album utilising the sound from the original master recording. The discs were pressed on high-quality virgin vinyl.

A painting of the band by “Patrick” (John Byrne) was at an earlier point under consideration to be used as the album’s cover. The piece was later used for the sleeve of the compilation album The Beatles’ Ballads, released in 1980.

Upon its release in November 1968, The Beatles received mixed reviews from music critics, most of whom viewed its mild, playful satire as unimportant and conservative. Time magazine wrote that the album comprises the “best abilities and worst tendencies” of the Beatles and found it skillfully performed and sophisticated, but lacking a “sense of taste and purpose.” Nik Cohn, writing in The New York Times, considered it “boring beyond belief” and described “more than half the songs” as “profound mediocrities.” Robert Christgau of The Village Voice said that the album is “their most consistent and probably their worst”, and referred to its songs as a “pastiche of musical exercises”. Critics also complained about a lack of unity among the songs and criticized the Beatles for using eclecticism and pastiche as a means of avoiding important issues during a turbulent political and social climate. Jon Landau, writing for the London Daily Times, argued that the band uses parody because they are “afraid of confronting reality” and “the urgencies of the moment”.

In a positive review, Tony Palmer of The Observer claimed that, “if there is still any doubt that Lennon and McCartney are the greatest songwriters since Schubert,” the album “should surely see the last vestiges of cultural snobbery and bourgeois prejudice swept away in a deluge of joyful music making”. Richard Goldstein of The New York Times felt that their songwriting had improved and they relied less on the studio “magic” of Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour. Alan Smith of NME derided “Revolution #9” as a “pretentious” example of “idiot immaturity”, but assigned the benediction “God Bless You, Beatles!” to “most of the rest” of the album. Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone called it their best album and asserted that they are allowed to appropriate other styles because their ability and identity are “so strong that they make it uniquely theirs, and uniquely the Bea­t­les. They are so good that they not only expand the idiom, but they are also able to pen­e­trate it and take it further.”

The Beatles has since been regarded as one of the best albums of all time. In 2003, Rolling Stone ranked it number 10 on its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. In a retrospective review, Neil McCormick of The Daily Telegraph also viewed the album as one of the greatest and found it “so eccentric and interesting” that “even its sketchiest oddities somehow gain power amidst the cornucopia of ideas and performances.” Allmusic editor Stephen Thomas Erlewine also felt that the album is interesting for “its mess” and wrote that each song is an “entity to itself, as the band touches on anything and everything they can”, which “makes for a frustratingly scattershot record or a singularly gripping musical experience, depending on your view”. In The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (2004), Rob Sheffield gave the album five stars and said that, despite “loads of self-indulgent filler”, listeners often pick different highlights, which is “part of the fun”. Slant Magazine’s Eric Henderson claimed that The Beatles remains one of the band’s few albums that “resists reflexive canonisation, which, along with society’s continued fragmentation, keeps the album fresh and surprising.” Chuck Klosterman, writing in The A.V. Club, said that the album found the band “hitting on all 16 cylinders” and called it a “masterwork”.

As it was their first studio album in almost eighteen months (and coming after the blockbuster success of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) expectations were high at time of release of The Beatles. The album debuted at number 1 in the UK on 1 December 1968 (becoming their third album to do so, after Help! and Revolver). It spent seven weeks at the top of the UK charts (including the entire competitive Christmas season), until it was replaced by The Seekers’ Best of the Seekers on 25 January 1969, dropping to number 2. However, the album returned to the top spot the next week, spending an eighth and final week at number 1. It then spent another four weeks in the Top 10, and then dropped in the charts more quickly than Sgt. Pepper. The White Album was notable for blocking The Beatles’ follow-up album, Yellow Submarine, which debuted (and peaked at) number 3 on 8 February 1969, the same week The White Album was dominating the second position on the charts. In all, The Beatles spent 24 weeks on the UK charts, far fewer than the more than 200 weeks for Sgt. Pepper.

In the United States, the album achieved huge commercial success. Capitol Records sold over 3.3 million copies of The White Album to stores within the first four days of the album’s release. It debuted at number 11, jumped to number 2, and reached number 1 in its third week, spending a total of nine weeks at the top. In all, The Beatles spent 155 weeks on the Billboard 200. According to the Recording Industry Association of America, The Beatles is The Beatles’ most-certified album at 19-times platinum and the tenth-best-selling album of all time in the United States. (Each sale is counted as two sales, because The Beatles is a double record set. Therefore, at 8.5 million records, it is the band’s third-best-selling-album in the US.)

Track listing

All songs written and composed by Lennon–McCartney, except where noted.

Side one
No. Title Lead vocals Length
1. “Back in the U.S.S.R.” McCartney 2:43
2. “Dear Prudence” Lennon 3:56
3. “Glass Onion” Lennon 2:17
4. “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” McCartney 3:08
5. “Wild Honey Pie” McCartney 0:52
6. “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” Lennon 3:14
7. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (George Harrison) Harrison 4:45
8. “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” Lennon 2:43
Side two
No. Title Lead vocals Length
1. “Martha My Dear” McCartney 2:28
2. “I’m So Tired” Lennon 2:03
3. “Blackbird” McCartney 2:18
4. “Piggies” (Harrison) Harrison 2:04
5. “Rocky Raccoon” McCartney 3:33
6. “Don’t Pass Me By” (Richard Starkey) Starr 3:51
7. “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?” McCartney 1:41
8. “I Will” McCartney 1:46
9. “Julia” Lennon 2:54
Side three
No. Title Lead vocals Length
1. “Birthday” McCartney and Lennon 2:42
2. “Yer Blues” Lennon 4:01
3. “Mother Nature’s Son” McCartney 2:48
4. “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey” Lennon 2:24
5. “Sexy Sadie” Lennon 3:15
6. “Helter Skelter” McCartney 4:29
7. “Long, Long, Long” (Harrison) Harrison 3:04
Side four
No. Title Lead vocals Length
1. “Revolution 1” Lennon 4:15
2. “Honey Pie” McCartney 2:41
3. “Savoy Truffle” (Harrison) Harrison 2:54
4. “Cry Baby Cry” Lennon, with McCartney 3:02
5. “Revolution 9” Speaking from Lennon, Harrison, George Martin and Yoko Ono 8:22
6. “Good Night” Starr 3:13